Ask a 'sotan: How can local farmers sell more in their community?

Mao Lee sells produce at the Maple Grove Farmers Market.
Mao Lee grows vegetables from her local family farm in Eagan, Minn., called Lee Farms. They sell their produce at the Maple Grove Farmers Market.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News File

Ask a 'sotan is an occasional series exploring the questions from curious Minnesotans about our state. Have a question about life in Minnesota? Ask it here.

Minnesota has a growing market for locally sourced food — but the opportunities for buying and selling local still aren’t always clear.

While collecting audience questions at the Minnesota State Fair MPR Booth, we received this query from a curious foodie: “How can local farmers sell more LOCALLY?”

We posed the question to a group of farmers and food enthusiasts that we gathered previously for our Feeding the Future series. Here’s what a few of them had to say on how they might sell more to customers in their immediate area.

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“The easy answer to farmers selling more food locally is: we need customers to buy food locally,” said Kathy Zeman, owner of Simple Harvest Farm Organics.

And there are plenty of opportunities. Zeman pointed to the many farmers markets held around the Twin Cities, as well as the possibility for schools, hospitals and other institutions to buy directly from farmers. She added that if the food being produced on the farm has no added ingredients it can be sold without a license from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture — one less thing for sellers to worry about.

However, it takes a lot of work and resources to get products to those consumer-facing spaces.

“I think that for farmers or food brokers focused on local mid-sized agriculture, the main issue is a complete lack of supportive services,” Jack McCann, co-founder of TC Farm.

The food still needs to be properly stored, processed and distributed to the local markets and that can be too expensive for smaller — and even some bigger — operations, he said.

Add the need for marketing into the mix and it becomes incredibly time consuming, too!

“Like most direct to consumer farmers, I didn't get into the business to be a salesperson or a distributor or anything like that — it was a passion for the food,” McCann said. “We don't really get to do that work as the rest of it sucks up all the time and energy.

Zeman pointed to cooperatively owned services like the Wisconsin Growers Cooperative or Co-op Partners Warehouse in helping overcome these types of hurdles.

“A food hub type of business focused just on storage and delivery might work; [it] would still need working capital though to get established. Or farmers cooperatively working together,” she said.

That might help with distribution, but processing is still a large issue.

“Mobile slaughter facilities may be of some help in northern Minnesota but most kill floors at the small plants are only used a couple days a week. This makes the cost per head compared to the commercial plants quite high,” said John Schafer, a farmer and board member on the Minnesota Beef Council and Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.

While local farmers and industry advocates continue to work on solutions to these problems, customers will be the driving force for allowing local farmers to sell locally.

“On the buyer side, they can ask for and make an effort to seek out what they want and pay enough to incentivize the farmer to produce it in a sustainable way,” said Scott Haas of Blue Dirt. “From the farmer's point of view I think it's important to be really good at communicating what exactly you’re selling, what sets apart, and how you'd like customers to buy it.”

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